Healthy Living in the North

“Don’t judge us. None of us want to die.” A success story of a woman struggling with addiction

Selfie of Teri-Lynn.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone or Narcan, I’d be dead,” she says.

Teri-Lynn was put up for adoption by her biological parents, both of whom struggled with substances. She remembers from a young age thinking she’d done something wrong to not be loved or wanted. This message became deep-rooted as she was moved from foster home to foster home due to abusive environments. Fortunately, Teri-Lynn eventually moved into a great, safe foster home, with people who she still has a close relationship with.

Growing up, she still unconsciously, yet desperately, sought acceptance. She found that despite being kicked out of school, providing THC (the mind-altering ingredient found in cannabis) to her friends was worth it to her. At 14 years old, she became hooked on crack cocaine, a habit she supported by engaging in criminal activity. After three years of experiencing repeated episodes of paranoia and drug-induced psychosis, she hitchhiked with a friend to the downtown East side of Vancouver and soon began using heroin and fentanyl.

This cycle of stealing and other criminal activity continued until her 18th birthday, when she became pregnant. She did her best to cut back on her use, to “do right by her baby,” but after a year, this lifestyle was too much and after one hit, she was hooked again.

She became re-entrenched in a life of stealing and other criminal activity to support her substance use habit. During that time, nurses, shelter staff, strangers, and mental health workers revived her 22 times.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone, I’d be dead,” says Teri-Lynn. “I was tired of having seizures, going to jail, being on the psychiatric unit for being suicidal, seeing cops outside my window, hiding in the closet because I was so paranoid, going to detox three times and treatment three times.”

After being on the methadone program for three years, fearing she’d overdose due to ongoing polysubstance use, she made the move back to Fort St. John with only a 4-week prescription.

After connecting with the Fort St. John Northern Health mental health office, she was immediately accepted into the Opiate Substitution Treatment Program (OSTP) and began working with the staff and Dr. Ohiaeri (now the Northern Health Medical Lead for Addiction in the Northeast).

Opiate Substitution Treatment provides clients with methadone or Suboxone to provide stable, long-acting relief from withdrawal and cravings. These medications replace the heroin or fentanyl that’s causing the problem with a regular dose of medication, which allows for a stable life.

During the intake process for the program, she was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and knew that changes needed to be made.

“Dr. Ohiaeri understood how hard it was for me, but still called me out when I told him I wasn’t clean. At first I didn’t like him, but looking back that’s what I needed,” says Teri-Lynn.

She recalls how the Women’s Resource Society and the mental health office helped her navigate the medical system, which had previously looked down on her and judged her. She found the staff to be open-minded and caring.

She was placed on medical disability due to a seizure disorder and things started to look up. She had stable housing and a regular income and was ready to make some big changes. She joined Narcotics Anonymous, working the 12-step program and going to church. These agencies provided some much needed support and acceptance.

It was at this time she requested to be transitioned into Opiate Agonist Treatment (OAT), with the intention of coming off medication altogether. This program supports clients with opioid use disorder by using a harm reduction approach and providing overdose survival training, take home naloxone kits, and opioid agonist therapy (buprenorphine/naloxone or methadone). Opioid agonist therapy works to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs. People who are addicted to opioid drugs can take OAT to help stabilize their lives and reduce the harms related to their drug use.

Teri-Lynn characterizes this decision as “the best thing ever. It helped me stay clean. Everyone should be offered it. I started on 32mg and within three months was down to 2mg. I’ve been off for 30 days and I don’t have any cravings. These past several months have been the first time in my life I’ve been motivated, happy and healthy. I’m even working part-time as a cashier at a local fast food establishment.”

She has reconnected with her 13-year-old daughter, who lives full-time with her father, and has recently been granted custody of her 5-year-old daughter, four days a week. She is slated to go to court in the near future, with the support of the foster mom, to ask for full custody. Teri-Lynn was also referred for Hep C treatment and is now cured.

Her advice: Have naloxone at shelters, Women’s Resource Centre, Mental Health Centres, hospitals, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Make access to naloxone easy. Have peer volunteers providing clean needles, naloxone kits, and candy for people on the streets.

“Don’t judge us. None of us want to die,” says Teri-Lynn.

Teri-Lynn has naloxone kits in her car, her house, and her purse.

“If it wasn’t for naloxone or Narcan, I’d be dead,” she says.

She currently holds a General Service Resource position with Narcotics Anonymous, chairs meetings, and advocates opiate substitution treatment to her peer groups.

If you or someone you know needs help, go to the Northern Health Mental Health and Substance Use webpage, the overdose prevention webpage, or call the crisis line at 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE).

Bailee Denicola

About Bailee Denicola

Bailee is a communications advisor in the Primary Care Department and was born and raised in Prince George. She graduated from UNBC with an anthropology degree and loves exploring cultures and learning about people. When not at work, Bailee can be found hanging out with her dogs, building her house with her husband, or travelling the world.

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Garry’s story: Coordinated team care + courage add up to a remarkable recipe for change

Headshot of Garry McPhee.

Garry McPhee, 50, is a member of the Tahltan First Nation in Northern British Columbia, which includes the communities of Telegraph Creek and Dease Lake. The Fort St. John resident had struggled with alcohol addiction, and also suffers from seizures. For much of the past 20 years, Garry has been homeless.

In June 2016, Northern Health’s Intensive Case Management Team (ICMT) became involved in Garry’s care. This story describes how the team was able to help Garry tap into his own inner strength and courage, and support him to abstinence, dignity, and independence.

The Intensive Case Management Team gets involved

The ICMT is a multidisciplinary team whose goal is to improve its clients’ health and social functioning. The team works with people who struggle with both substance use and mental illness. They provide case management and support navigating health and social services. The team also plays an important role in advocating with community services to ensure quality care for their clients. The team is made up of substance use specialists, life skills workers, and nurses.

The ICMT became part of Garry’s life in June 2016.

“Before:” A dangerous situation

At this point, Garry’s life was chaotic and his health was poor. He was drinking, his seizures became unmanageable, and he was in danger of becoming homeless again. During a 6-month period, Garry spent over 60 days in hospital due to his deteriorating health.

During the 113 days he wasn’t in hospital, Garry visited Emergency 190 times — an average of 1.6 times per day – often arriving by ambulance or RCMP. Fort St. John paramedics, emergency room staff, and RCMP officers all knew him on a first-name basis.

When ICMT became involved, Garry was living at the Northern Centre of Hope in Fort St. John, using his income assistance cheque to pay for room and board. Garry was soon housed in the Supportive Recovery Bed program, a housing program for homeless people who are struggling with substance use.

In the past Garry had tried residential treatment, but due to a negative experience, he was wary of attending again. He rarely saw his family doctor.

Building trust and setting the stage for change

When the ICMT started working with Garry, their first priority was to build a trusting relationship: they met him regularly, whether at the Northern Centre of Hope, the hospital, or on the street. With his participation, Garry and the team created a patient-centred plan to enhance his quality of care.

Sometimes their interactions with Garry would just be to say “Hi!” and ask about his day. At other times, the ICMT had a more varied role:

  • Helping Garry learn about being safe and healthy, despite his alcohol use.
  • Helping him manage his medications.
  • Attending medical appointments with him.
  • Arranging ongoing physical and mental health assessments.
  • Coordinating his care, including social services.
  • Ensuring he attended for regular lab work.

Together with emergency department staff, the ICMT team developed an emergency department care plan for Garry. This was to make sure that when Garry was in hospital, he’d get the best care possible.

The team also met often with Northern Centre of Hope staff to give them support around working with Garry, and to make sure he could keep his housing with them.

As well, ICMT encouraged Garry to:

  • See his family doctor regularly, and follow up with lab work when needed.
  • Visit community psychiatric services.

ICMT also collaborated with Garry’s family doctor and psychiatrist to ensure he was receiving the best care.

During ICMT’s involvement, there were significant changes. Garry had only 135 visits to the emergency department and spent only 20 days in hospital — a 29% reduction in emergency department visits, and a 67% reduction in hospital days.  

ICMT also helped Garry apply for BC’s Persons with Disabilities program (PWD). He successfully joined the program, giving him a more secure source of income.

Throughout, ICMT always respected Garry’s dignity and his right to make his own decisions. Garry was always the one in charge of any changes that were made.

Tragedy brings a fresh challenge

Garry is the oldest of five children, and he and his younger brother were very close. They lived together at the Northern Centre of Hope and spent most of their time together. The brothers were always looking out for each other.

But in July 2017, Garry’s brother passed away. This was a very difficult time for Garry and he thought about moving back to the Yukon, even though he knew that he would likely return to drinking. ICMT checked in with Garry regularly to offer any support they could.

Garry had been undecided about residential treatment for his alcohol use. His experience at the previous treatment centre wasn’t positive, and he had been worried about leaving his brother and mother behind in Fort St. John.

But after his brother died, Garry’s feelings changed. When he was offered a spot in a residential program in Prince George, he took the brave step of deciding to go. ICMT worked with the treatment centre in advance to make sure that Garry would have the best possible chance for success.

Before attending treatment, Garry stayed in the Prince George Detox Centre. There he attended recovery groups, met the staff, and heard other clients’ stories about recovery. After hearing many positive reviews, he was excited about going to the treatment centre. After he completed detox, Garry attended residential treatment for 42 days.

“After:” A new life of abstinence and dignity

Since finishing treatment and returning home to Fort St. John, Garry’s life has been a catalogue of independence, self-care, and confidence. It’s a stunning contrast to his old life. His experience is a testament to the support from the ICMT staff, and proof of this man’s courage and strength in making real change:

  • Garry has abstained from alcohol, and he’s been attending AA meetings. Instead of drinking, he spends time with friends at the Northern Centre of Hope or cooks meals with them, which they eat together while watching sports.
  • He attended the treatment centre’s refresher program in June 2018, and may attend again in June 2019.
  • He regularly visits the hospital to see his mother in Peace Villa or to say a quick “Hi and thank you” to emergency room staff.
  • He has been arranging his own medical appointments without ICMT’s help.
  • He’s currently renting a room in the high barrier housing program at the Northern Centre of Hope.
  • Garry is a caring and responsible pet owner, ensuring his 15+ goldfish are always fed and happy.
  • And, finally, Garry volunteers weekly at the Salvation Army clothing store in Fort St. John.

This inspiring story shows the massive difference that coordinated team care can make to a person’s life and health. It’s also a deeply humbling story that reminds all of us that it’s never too late for change.

Northern Health thanks the Intensive Case Management Team for their outstanding work with Garry, and most importantly, we thank Garry for sharing this uplifting story – we know it will inspire many others.

Bailee Denicola

About Bailee Denicola

Bailee is a communications advisor in the Primary Care Department and was born and raised in Prince George. She graduated from UNBC with an anthropology degree and loves exploring cultures and learning about people. When not at work, Bailee can be found hanging out with her dogs, building her house with her husband, or travelling the world.

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“How much, how often, and when?” A drinker asks some questions

Bottle of wine, wine glass, calendar, and clock on a counter

How much, how often, and when are all important questions to ask when considering alcohol use.

The holiday season is fast approaching. In November and December, many people tend to drink alcohol more often, culminating in what is possibly the biggest potential drinking event of all for many people: New Year’s Eve. Often, at some point during this season, people ask themselves, “Do I drink too much?” It’s a good question and it is one that all people who drink should ask from time to time. There are problems with this question, though: How much is too much? Is it only the amount we drink that matters? Let’s consider three questions that I think might be good to ask ourselves:

  • How much?
  • How often?
  • When?

These three questions can help us to recognize the issues and problems related to drinking. Asking them can also help us to gain insight into ourselves and into the culture of our communities. They may lead to other important questions as well.

How much?

How much alcohol a person uses is important. People are different and what may be safe or low-risk use for one person may not be safe or low-risk for another. There is no fixed amount that is safe for everyone so it’s good to know how much you drink. It is also useful to reflect on changes in how much you have had to drink over time. Are you drinking more than you used to? What accounts for that change?

How often?

How often a person drinks is important as well. A person may not drink a lot but if they drink often, then the effects of their use may become a problem. Do you drink more often than you used to? What effect is that having on you? What effect is that having on your relationships and on those around you?

When?

When a person drinks is another important consideration. Asking this question can give some insight into the role that alcohol has in a person’s life. Asking “when?” can highlight what drives a person to drink and can be an indicator of potential problems. Do you drink in social situations? Do you drink when you are stressed? Do you drink to cope?

Canada has endorsed a set of Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines. These guidelines are a good start when considering your answers to the questions I asked above. Getting to know yourself and understanding your relationship with alcohol are further steps toward building a better, healthier life.

For more information about low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines, I suggest the following resources:

Andrew Burton

About Andrew Burton

Andrew is a Community Integration Systems Navigator for Northern Health’s HIV and Hepatitis C Care team and works to support healthy living practices in communities across northern B.C. Andrew is developing positive activity and diet practices for two reasons: to deal with his own health concerns, and to “walk the talk” of promoting healthy living. Building on his training and experience in creative arts therapy, Andrew founded and runs the Street Spirits Theatre program promoting social responsibility among young people. This work has been recognized nationally and internationally as a leading method of social change.

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